TENNIS : Sampras succumbs to astonishing Agassi

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Pete Sampras was shell-shocked, the 14,000 crowd was stunned, and Andre Agassi was inspired, reeling off 19 points in row to stage an astonishing comeback en route to defeating the world No 1 and defending champion in the final of the Lipton Championships.

A few years ago, it would have been a brave or foolish person who would have staked a cent on Agassi recovering from a set down, 2-2 and 0-40 to beat the top player - whoever it happened to be - over three sets. He accomplished it yesterday, 3-6, 6-2, 7-6, after two hours and 13 minutes.

Even the new, improved Agassi, the world No 2, was looking as down and out as the clothes he wears as his smooth rival shaped up for the kill. "You tend to feel like maybe it is not your day out there," Agassi said afterwards. "Your only obligation in a situation like that is just to keep on working through it and hope it turns around."

Turn around it did, from the moment Agassi produced a forehand drive to save the first of the break points. Sampras began to falter, and the Las Vegan was on a roll. Before Sampras knew what was befalling him, Agassi had levelled the match at one set all and was a game up in the final set.

Sampras, understandably, became rather tentative when returning serve, and there were no further break points on either side, the champion delivering his eighth and ninth aces to take the contest into a shoot-out.

Agassi, who had won three of their four previous tie-breaks (notably when swinging the Australian Open final his way in January), hit an impressive return on the sixth point. Sampras could only volley wide, and from 4- 2 Agassi was in control. He raised his arms in exultation after driving a backhand down the line for 5-3, and punished a second serve from Sampras, prompting his opponent to miss a backhand, on the concluding point.

Sampras needed no reminding where it all went wrong. "I kind of played cautiously in the middle of the second set," he said ruefully. "I had him 0-40 and I wasn't quite aggressive on those points. Basically, I just waited for Andre to miss, and he was just too good. When it came down to the tie-breaker, he really kept me deep. He didn't really give me an opportunity to come in and do what I wanted to do."

An expectant audience shuffled uneasily in their seats when Sampras began as if he was in the form to sweep to a ninth victory in the 15-match head- to-head series against his compatriot. He was 3-0 up after only 10 minutes, having converted his first break point in the second game.

Agassi had three chances to break back in the fifth game and three more in the ninth game, with Sampras serving for the opening set. After saving those three, Sampras made an amazing diving backhand stop volley to create the first set point. He needed three more before Agassi netted a backhand, shook his head, and prepared to lift his game - and the crowd - for the remainder of the battle.

Asked when he had last won 19 consecutive points, he said: "In a real match? That doesn't happen too often, especially against a guy like Pete. When he had 0-40 and ended up losing that game he just kind of lost his intensity a little bit, and I got a sense of life in me."

Sampras, who recovered from a stomach upset to defeat Agassi in the final here last year, remains ahead of his rival on the ATP Tour computer, but has seen him grow in confidence, match by match.

A fortnight ago, after losing to Sampras in the best of five sets final at Indian Wells, 7-5, 6-3, 7-5, Agassi made a promise to his father, who was about to undergo heart surgery, that he would "kick Pete's ass" next time.

Having kept his word in spectacular fashion, Agassi duly dedicated the victory to the recuperating Mike Agassi, the hard man from Armenia who pushed his son through his early years on the court.

Results, Sporting Digest, page 28